The Manhattan Project
A squat package from Amazon Prime arrived at my door one afternoon with the kind of lopsided heft you’d expect of a bubble-wrapped bowling ball or maybe an antique typewriter cocooned in biodegradable peanuts. I gave it a shake and brought it inside to strip off the packing tape. This was the latest in a cadence of brown-boxed surprises to arrive that week, all gifts to a future self from a former one fortified by a few cocktails and empowered by one-click purchasing.
What I found inside the box recalled the oysters and the muscadet I’d had in Red Hook that weekend, and more directly the two or three fantastic Manhattans I’d had to wash them all down. The drinks had come with just the right amount of Carpano Antica, not the usual cheap, sour vermouth, and each was garnished with two Luxardo Maraschino cherries: deep, dark sugar bombs shot through with a lush syrup that warms the soul and frightens the pancreas.
Will power weakened by the Manhattan bender, I must have bought myself a six-pound container of Luxardo Maraschino cherries. This, I did not regard as a mistake—even now that I had sobered up.
The bar was called Fort Defiance, named after a loose assemblage of defenses cobbled together during the Battle of Brooklyn in the Revolutionary War. It possesses, like the rest of Red Hook’s establishments, the feeling that it is somehow apart from the rest of New York City. And that has nothing to do with the lack of public transit.
In 2012 I watched from the banks of the East River as the waters raged and Hurricane Sandy gathered strength. The assault on Red Hook ravaged local businesses and homes, but together the hearty folks there soon rebuilt what had been lost. They live on a frontier—theirs is not a polished part of the city, but one built from the bricks up. A bit dangerous, a bit rough, but all the better for it.
This has always been the case, from the days when Red Hook housed dockworkers and shipyards up through recent history. In the 1990s, Red Hook was considered the crack cocaine capital of New York. In the early 2000s, when I came to the city, it had been cleaned up but was no less barren. There were two or three bars— one replete with bad taxidermy, the other a haven for burlesque and performers. A band I had joined practiced in the same space Fort Defiance would later rehabilitate on Van Brunt Street, a cold, unforgiving, and far-flung box of a room that was an hour and a half from my apartment on the Upper West Side. The space did offer a baroque species of Hammond organ and low rent to compensate, but I recall dreading the trek from train to train to train to bus to get there. Gone now is the practice space, having given way to new wine bars, an Ikea, other staples of gentrification.
Not too far away from Fort Defiance in Red Hook sat a competing manufacturer to Luxardo, Dell’s Maraschino Cherries. I didn’t like their saccharine brand of garnish—a cheap, neon bulb topped by a simulated stem, but it turns out the cherries weren’t the finest product to be churned out of the family-owned factory. Dell’s would later be revealed as the front for a secret basement pot farm yielding ten million dollars in profit every year, according to one estimate. The so-called “cherry king” Arthur Mondella killed himself in a bathroom before police could bring him in for questioning but by that point many in the neighborhood knew the truth. Mondella’s casket was carried to the church with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” blasting on the loudspeakers.
I never smoked the Cherry King’s weed, but my vice of choice–Amazon Prime–had nonetheless called him to mind. How was it that this inferior brand of cherry held sway over most bar stations in America? Luxardo’s exotic Italian brand of cherry was first made in 1905 and was likely borrowed along with the eponymous liqueur from Croatian coastal origins. Next to the preservative-laden American varieties, the cherries burst with flavor. They taste like actual fruit, not some day-glo science experiment gone awry.
Thing is, they’re expensive, and at Fort Defiance I must have reasoned that buying in bulk was the best way to support my habit. Luxardo cherries are one of those bar staples or bellwether ingredients that informs you, straight off, that a place means business, and I mean business when it comes to making Manhattans.
Do the math and a small jar often goes for 20 bucks a pop. That’s about 50 cents a cherry, a steep cost if the bartender is generous with her garnishes. I’d taken to eschewing the cherry altogether in favor of a peel or twist, if the cherry offered was inferior. Bar-made brandy cherries are often delicious, but more flaccid than the Luxardo variety, which benefits from the layers upon layers of taste provided by the syrup surrounding and suffusing it. (Add a dollop or two of said syrup to your next Manhattan before stirring and you’ll appreciate the depth it adds to the party.)
So it was that I found myself with six pounds of the finest grade of man-manipulated cherry product. Under similar conditions—too many drinks, too little restraint—I’ve come into the possession of everything from a 1976 BMW 2002 (bad idea) to a vintage surveyor’s tripod which I later fashioned into a lamp for my living room. But this was a remarkable commitment to a single ingredient, one that reflects my devotion to the Manhattan in all of its forms.
Lately I’ve taken to enjoying the drink with maraschino liqueur as an addition. Just add a half-ounce to two ounces of whiskey (I prefer Rye) along with a shake or two of bitters (or an amaro for a kick) and an ounce of your dry vermouth of choice. (Cocchi Americano works as a substitute for the Vermouth; so does Carpano Antica.)
This cocktail, so made, is called the Brooklyn. And if you’re around I’d be happy to fix you my borough’s eponymous cocktail. Stop by. I won’t run out of cherries any time soon.